Downtown St. Paul scene gets extra shot from Amsterdam Bar

Downtown St. Paul
Amy Ihlen, Diane Evans and Sara Nahlovsky, left to right, who all work at Lawson, enjoy happy hour drinks and food Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in downtown St. Paul, Minn. They said they like the bar's relaxed atmosphere and hang out there together a couple times a month since it opened.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Shawn Koval and his girlfriend Erica Perry rarely venture from Minneapolis into St. Paul for happy hour. But a new music venue, the Amsterdam Bar and Hall, lured the couple across the river recently.

A dark, sparse space that feels industrial, it hosts workers in suits and young people in hoodies, rubbing shoulders as they sip on imported beer. Koval said he's surprised by the scene, and never thought of St. Paul as a happening place. But the Amsterdam, on West 6th Street, is changing his mind.

"We moved here three years ago from Wisconsin, and we wanted to live in Minneapolis because we view it as more cultured," he said. "When I think of downtown St. Paul, I think it's quiet, people leave after work. All the parking meters are done at 4:30."

The Amsterdam opened in September in a vacant restaurant space owned by the city. The two owners -- Jon Oulman and his son Jarret -- were wooed by Mayor Chris Coleman's staff after seeing what their 331 music club had done in northeast Minneapolis.

Jarret Oulman, 34, said he was intrigued by the idea of helping develop the music scene in St. Paul.

"If not here, where?" he asked. "There are lots and lots of young people already here that go to Uptown, go to Northeast, to see live bands from St. Paul."

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The city also sought two compatible businesses to fill the spaces next door -- a record store and a screen-printing studio that produces art posters for bands.

Downtown St. Paul
Nikki and the Ruemates, a blues and folk band, perform during happy hour Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011 at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall. Band members include, front to back, Jon Olson, Nikki Matteson, Rich Rue and Gretta Hunstiger. The Amsterdam is one of the most recent live-music venues to open downtown St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Business so far has exceeded their expectations, they said. And some of their most loyal customers have not, perhaps surprisingly given the Amsterdam's vibe, been skateboarders or hipsters, but office workers.

Jon Oulman said maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise.

"I grew up in Blaine," he said. "Just because someone works in an office doesn't mean they're not interested in music and culture."

The person who recruited them to St. Paul is the city's arts and culture director Joe Spencer, labeled by some City Hall insiders as the "minister of cool."

Downtown is hitting its stride just four years after a Pioneer Press story lamented whether that nightlife seemed like it might be gone forever, he said. Then a tavern, a tequila bar and a wine bar opened in downtown's artsy Lowertown district. And in 2009, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival officially moved to downtown's Mears Park.

"We had Esperanza Spalding and Allen Toussaint down in the park, and Prince was driving around the park, and it was the opening weekend of Barrio. It felt like a really important shift," Spencer said. "Since that point, we've had more and more successes."

Downtown St. Paul
Peet Fetsch, owner of Big Table Studio, cleans a screen after making some test prints Friday, Dec. 23, 2011 at the storefront in downtown St. Paul, Minn. Eight artists work from the studio, which includes a small gallery and a retail area for screen prints, cards and t-shirts.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

But downtown is not without its struggles. A bleaker picture emerges when measuring the area's vitality in terms of office occupancy and retail options.

There's a giant question mark looming over Macy's, the last remaining department store, and how long it will continue to stay open downtown. Not to mention there hasn't been a skyscraper or major development built over the past decade. Even the Amsterdam club and its neighbors are filling a space where once-touted restaurants fizzled and closed shop.

Mayor Coleman said the economy has put a damper on major development, but he's also focusing on smaller projects, inspired by Austin, Texas, where the music scene and indie shops are a magnet for young people.

"If you're coming out of MIT, Stanford, and the best colleges in the country, you can go anywhere you want. Why do people choose to live or work in downtown St. Paul?" he asked. "You've got to create that vibrancy; you've got to create that soul. Otherwise, you're going to be hard-pressed to compete for a creative class."

A new St. Paul Saints ballpark in Lowertown is part of Coleman's strategy, and he said lobbying for funds to help build the park will be a top priority at the Capitol next year.

The light rail transit system set to open in 2014 will also position the city for even more growth, even though ongoing construction has made parts of downtown a mess, he said.

Lenny Russo is among those business owners who have opted to set up shop downtown. He considered opening his acclaimed Heartland Restaurant in two other locations in Minneapolis before deciding on Lowertown, because the native East Coaster said St. Paul always struck him as the less flashy cousin of Minneapolis, similar to the way Brooklyn is to Manhattan in New York.

"Today we're seeing a huge renaissance in Brooklyn. And I think we're seeing the same kind of renaissance and revitalization in St. Paul," he said.

Russo said downtown St. Paul is still missing a critical mass of residents and attractions. But he says the neighborhood is fighting the naysayers -- one bar, restaurant and rock club at a time.